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Guest Post - The Role of Online Will Writing Services – Where Exactly Do they Fit?

This guest post was written by Tim Hewson, President and co-Founder of LegalWills.ca. NoticeConnect and LegalWills.ca partnered so that LegalWills.ca customers can register their wills on the Canada Will Registry at no cost.

There is an undeniable trend of Canadians turning to online Will writing services to prepare their Will and other estate planning documents. Across all online Will service providers a conservative estimate would indicate that over 100,000 Wills are created every year using these services in Canada.

There are obvious attractions to online Will services. To some extent, price comes to mind, but most people using these services point to the convenience rather than price as their main motivation. Will writing has traditionally been a “never get around to” kind of task. Statistics show that over 60 percent of Canadian adults don’t have a Will, even though most know that it’s an important document. Online Will services offer the lure of “click here and have your Will complete in 20 minutes without leaving your sofa”. Furthermore, the ability to make updates to reflect changes in circumstances moves people away from a Will being a “once-in-a-lifetime” task, but rather something that can be written when young, and updated throughout one’s life.

Is there a legitimate role for online Will services?

When you explore the evolution of DIY Will services, you have to go back to the blank form Will kits from the 1990’s. These were unquestionably awful and rightly criticized. There was simply too much room for making a real mess. In the early 2000’s DIY Will services came online at around the same time as tax preparation software. At that time, accountants and tax professionals were claiming that software could never do the work of a tax-pro, but two decades later, the software has evolved to a point that online tax preparation is a great fit for a very large percentage of the population.

Like tax software, online Will writing services have evolved offering more capabilities, more intuitive designs, and greater functionality to accompany the core Will writing product. Will writing is generally an unfamiliar task for most people and so the online-help becomes an educational and reassuring part of the process.

Where online Will writing services have really shone is the commodifying of Will writing knowledge and information. If you type in most Will related enquiries into Google today, the first page hits are coming from the knowledge bases of the online service providers. Furthermore, if somebody has a simple question, online service providers have invested in support teams that can answer simple questions free of charge (and without overstepping to offer legal advice). At LegalWills.ca we answer over 10,000 questions a year, and don’t charge a single penny for this service.

The adoption of technology

The last five years has seen new entrants to the online Will writing market and this has accelerated innovation. Online Will services are now offering online vaults for file storage, interactive services that pass on asset inventory information to the Executor, even written messages to be delivered posthumously. Online services seem to be the first to adapt to digital assets, e-signatures, and digital storing of documents. The services are usually made available to be accessed from any device from any location in the World. These are all services being demanded by customers.

Knowing the limits

Different online Will writing services take different approaches to guard railing their options. Some offer a select number of options; for example, a single Executor, one or two specific bequests, and equal distribution of the residual estate. If you wish to do anything beyond this, the service will point you to a legal professional. The service knows that it may be addressing the needs of half of the population and turning away the other half, but also feels quite confident that the final document is an effective Will.

The issue of governance

The most significant challenge is one of oversight. There are probably more than twenty online Will writing service providers in Canada today. Very few were founded by legal professionals, some at least work with estate planning lawyers, others are online having had no legal input whatsoever. Some offer customer support, others don’t. So how does a consumer know that a particular service provider offers a legitimate service?

Currently, the only verification available is through customer reviews, but often these are a review of the service, not a review of the effectiveness of the Will after the passing of the client.

Where are the hybrid models?

The real surprise is that in the 20 years of online service providers creating hundreds of thousands of Wills, we have seen very few hybrid models appearing. We commonly hear from people who use our service explaining that “I just want a simple Will that leaves everything to my spouse. If we both die, everything will go in equal shares to my two children. I spoke to a lawyer, and they want $800”.

Based on our interactions over two decades, it seems that there is room for a hybrid model where a simple Will can be created for a reasonable cost to the consumer, but with an option to speak with a lawyer for a point of clarification.

There is still a long way to go to make Will writing accessible to more Canadians. While many people still need legal advice to prepare their Will, some will have their needs met by an online Will writing service. Perhaps most people sit somewhere in the middle; needing the affordability and convenience of an online service, backed by legal professionals who are available when needed.

By Tim Hewson, President and co-Founder of LegalWills.ca